Micah Jones had the kind of second half that looked like it should have helped the Cowden-Herrick/Beecher City Hornets advance to the state championship.
The two-time all-state senior had 17 points and 11 rebounds in the half to finish the day with 26 points and a state tournament-record 21 rebounds.
But the Hornets' balanced offense that pushed them to a 24-15 halftime lead completely disappeared in the second half, and Jones' 17 points were the only 17 points CHBC scored in the final 16 minutes.
With the balance gone, CHBC (26-6) was downed 49-41 by Mount Pulaski, sending the Lady Toppers to their first ever state championship game.
Mount Pulaski upped its pressure on the Hornet guards, and with them taken out of the offense, the Toppers were able to mount a rally and take the game.
"When they changed the defense, we didn't take the ball as aggressively to the bucket," said CHBC coach Carolyn Wendte. "All we wanted to do was pass the ball between my three guards. We just didn't have the entry pass lane to throw it into (Micah)."
For the game, Jones hit 11 of her 19 shots. The other six Hornets to put up a shot finished the game 4-for-31.
Autumn Riley and Ava Paruleski felt the defensive pressure in the second half and couldn't find their shots. Riley finished the game 1-of-9 from the field and scored five points, while Paruleski was 1-of-10 from the field for three points and committed five turnovers.
When asked what she could have done differently after the game, Paruleski's answer was pretty simple.
"Just... don't turn it over as much," the senior guard said.
Defense ruled the first quarter. Both all-state players, Jones and the Toppers' Jessica Awe got off to slow starts. Jones was held scoreless, and Awe's first bucket came at the buzzer with a three, pushing the Toppers out to a 10-9 lead.
They scored the first four points of the second and put the Hornets up against the ropes.
From there, the offense got going for the Hornets. Jones got on the board with a layup, and Riley drilled a three to tie the game at 14-14.
Jones scored the next seven points and then Chandler Ward hit a 3-pointer to cap off a 15-0 run for the Hornets. Awe hit one free throw to end the run, and the Hornets led 24-15 at the half.
"I thought the first half, we played well and held our intensity," Wendte said. "Second half, we come out and we had too many unforced turnovers. We were trying to rush things and didn't handle the ball well."
But Mount Pulaski came out with renewed energy and hot hands across the board, going on a 14-4 run led by Andrea Dickson, Kendra Willougby and a big 3-pointer by Erika Leever to tie the game.
Jones scored four quick points, and Dickerson hit a three to push the score to 32-31 CHBC after three.
The Toppers kept the pressure on, and scored the first seven points of the quarter behind Dickerson, Awe and another Leever 3-pointer.
Down six with half a quarter to play, Jones went to work. She hit a jumper to cut the lead to four, and took a rebound coast-to-coast for a layup and a foul. She hit the free throw and suddenly, it was 38-37 Mount Pulaski with 2:54 to play.
But Dickerson, Awe and Willoughby put the game away from there, hitting jumpers, layups and free throws alike.
Paruleski went to the line down 42-37 with 1:57 to play for a one-and-one and a chance to cut the lead to three, but missed the front end. The Hornets never got closer.
“I think we were prepared, but when little things started happening, we sort of backed off and didn’t finish strong,” Wendte said.
All in all, after being held scoreless in the first quarter, Jones scored 26 of the final 32 points for CHBC.
While the Hornets struggled in the second, shooting just 26.9 percent compared to Mount Pulaski’s 50 percent mark from the field, it was their play on the deep ball that hurt.
CHBC went 0-for-12 in the second half from behind the arc, while Mount Pulaski hit 3 of its five opportunities.
Dickerson finished with 18 points, and the diminutive Awe (5’3”) had 15 points and 11 rebounds. Leever and Willoughby each had eight points.
Mount Pulaski faces last year’s state champion, Freeport
Aquin, at 2 p.m. today.
CHBC will play for third-place, after grabbing second and fourth places over the past four years. They face Annawan, who took the defending state champions to the wire before falling short.
It’ll be a quick turnaround, with the game beginning at 12 p.m., but Wendte said she thinks the Hornets can rebound.
“It wasn’t our day today, but it could be tomorrow; I think these seniors will lead us back,” she said.
Mount Pulaski 49, CHBC 41
CHBC 9 15 8 9 - 41
MP 10 5 16 18 - 49
CHBC – Riley 5, Jones 26, Paruleski 3, Herrmann 4, Ward 3
MP – Willoughby 8, Leever 8, Awe 15, Dickerson 18